San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (middle) speaks as teammates Tony Parker (left) and Manu Ginobili (right) listen during NBA championship celebrations at Alamodome. Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
This was supposed to be a three-peat. A culmination of LeBron James joining the most elite of the NBA’s elite: one of the rare athletes to win three straight NBA championships. Even if their regular season was inconsistent, even with Dwyane Wade missing 28 games, even with challengers like the Indiana Pacers making all kinds of noise, the Heat were still supposed to be good enough to win another title.
Then the San Antonio Spurs happened.
The “small market team,” the lone professional sports franchise in the city of San Antonio, the perpetually “boring” and “robotic” Spurs were supposed to be too old and too overwhelmed by the talent of James.
Just a year ago, Coach Gregg Popovich and his Spurs were already on their way to winning the franchise’s fifth title in Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals until Ray Allen bailed the Heat out. As Miami celebrated their championship after Game Seven, Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the Spurs seethed. They would use that lost opportunity all season long as motivation, and they would not let it happen again.
In Duncan, you have that rarest of NBA players these days: someone who came into the league after staying all four years in college at Wake Forest University. “The Big Fundamental” has been content to ply his trade in the relative anonymity of San Antonio, never really considering leaving even when overtures were made by Orlando in the mid-00s, and instead trusting in the leadership of Popovich and general manager RC Buford. His arrival in 1997 allowed him to team with Hall of Fame center David Robinson for the team’s first NBA Championship in the lockout-shortened 1998 season.
Not going the more traditional routes of mining top talent from US colleges or through free agency, San Antonio pioneered the scouting of talent in Europe and elsewhere, resulting in the arrival of Ginobili, Parker, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills. Popovich, the army-raised general whose coaching tree has yielded the likes of Mike Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, etc., has built a team with three traditional “superstars” while everyone else is content to help out. Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have all at one point or another renegotiated their contracts to accept lower salaries to shore up the roster.
Wading through the West
Even if the Spurs were focused on earning homecourt advantage throughout this year’s playoffs, Popovich stuck with his practice in recent seasons of resting his veterans for several regular season games to save them for the playoff stretch. In fact, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra did something similar as he rested Wade and his creaky knees regularly.
Yet even if San Antonio secured the number one seed in the West, they were still pushed to the brink by their fellow Texas team, the Dallas Mavericks, in the first round. This was followed by a series with the rising Portland Trailblazers and their young superstar duo of Damien Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
When San Antonio opened the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, you had the conference’s two most recent representatives to the Finals. The devastating duo of 2014 MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were supposed to be good enough to carry the Thunder to their first championship, but the lack of a third scorer ended up dooming OKC’s hopes. Instead, we got the first NBA Finals rematch since the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz went at it in 1997 and 1998.
Revenge is sweet
These NBA Finals will be remembered for the dissolution of Miami’s dreams of a three-peat, but it may also signal the arrival of the next NBA superstar in San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. Famous for avoiding interviews and uncomfortable talking about himself, Leonard was selected 15th overall out of San Diego State University in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. He was traded to the Spurs together with the rights to Erazem Lorbek and Davis Bertans for George Hill, and quickly turned into a steal of that draft. Averaging 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds in last year’s Finals, Leonard took on more responsibility this season, particularly when Popovich rested his veteran trio.
Popovich himself noted back in 2012 that the athletic Leonard is full of potential: “I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had (two years) of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.”
Those words would prove to be prophetic as it would be the swingman’s play that would help swing the 2014 NBA Finals for the Spurs. In a series that went five games, this sure felt like a sweep. Not counting Miami’s 98-96 victory in Game Two, San Antonio obliterated their opponents. The Heat lost by an average of 14 points per game, the largest margin in NBA Finals history.
Sure, Tim Duncan often looked like he found the Fountain of Youth as he averaged 15.4 points and 10 rebounds in five games. But it was Leonard who took on the challenge of responding to LeBron James and who refused to be intimidated by the four-time league MVP.
Heat go cold
San Antonio’s decisive 104-87 victory in Game Five not only handed the franchise its fifth title, not only did it give Duncan and Popovich titles 16 years apart, but it might have also signaled the end of the erstwhile superpower that was the Miami Heat. Everybody saw that it was basically James and only James who was making any serious dent in the Spurs’ onslaught. His fellow “Big Three” cohorts Bosh and Wade looked like shells of themselves. When they needed to be a Big Three, there was instead a “Big One.”
The rumors have begun swirling that James might opt out of his contract a year early to again take his talents elsewhere. Whereas a week ago, Carmelo Anthony was rumored to be considering joining the Heat, the Finals loss suddenly throws everything in disarray. Shane Battier now officially retires, but everything else now hangs up in the air for Heat president Riley and Spoelstra.
But let that be for another day, another week, another month. This moment belongs to the 2014 NBA Champions, the San Antonio Spurs.
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